Accounting and accountability practices in times of crisis: a Foucauldian perspective on the UK government's response to COVID-19 for England

Thomas Ahrens, Laurence Ferry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Purpose: This paper considers the accounting and accountability practices of the UK government’s response to COVID-19 for England, focussing on the first wave of the pandemic in 2020. Design/methodology/approach: Based on a close reading of the news media and official reports from government departments, Parliament select committees and the National Audit Office, among others, this paper frames the UK government's uses of accounting and accountability in its response to COVID-19. This is by using the categories of “apparatuses of security”, Foucault's schematic of government for economising on the uses of state power. Findings: The paper shows that an important role for accounting is in the process of enabling the government to gauge the extent of the crisis and produce calculations to underpin its response, what Foucault called “normalisation”. This role was unlike statistics and economics. The government relied most on monthly statistical reporting and budgeting flexibilities. By contrast, the multi-year Spending Review and financial reporting were not timely enough. That said, financial reporting fed into financial sustainability projections and enabled audit that could provide potential accountability regarding regularity, probity, value for money and fairness. The authors’ findings suggest that, conceptually, accountability should be added to the object–subject element of Foucault's apparatuses of security because of its significance for governments' ability to pursue crisis objectives that require popular assent. Practical implications: In view of the ongoing uncertainty, with the crisis extending over longer budget and financial reporting periods, a Spending Review is becoming ever more necessary for better planning, without limiting, however, the budget flexibilities that have proven so useful for rapid government responses. Moreover, the government should continue its accounting reforms post COVID-19 so that improved accountability and audit can contribute to enhanced future financial resilience. Originality/value: This is the first paper to apply Foucault's notion of apparatuses of security to an analysis of government accounting and accountability practices.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1332-1344
Number of pages13
JournalAccounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal
Volume34
Issue number6
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Keywords

  • Accountability
  • Apparatuses of security
  • COVID-19
  • Crises
  • Government
  • UK

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Accounting
  • Economics, Econometrics and Finance (miscellaneous)

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